Civil War historian Gary Gallagher offered his incisive thoughts about the difference between “history” and “memory” in a recent lecture.
I want to add some of my comments about “history that didn’t happen.” Nick Sacco also offers some comments on his blog, “Exploring The Past.” Sacco says “Too often . . . our memories can lead us to think of historical events as inevitable.” I think this is a vital point that too many historians, professionals and laymen, don’t give enough attention.
It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.
The "history" of an individual or a group or a nation is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.
The folks who lived and made history in the past literally didn’t know how everything was going to turn out. Only we know that. Inevitably, that tends to color our judgment and understanding of what actually happened in the past.
Sacco paraphrases Gallagher: “. . . history students oftentimes confuse history and memory as being one in the same, and these confusions can lead to questionable interpretations of primary source documents. . . in any historical event there’s a certain sequence of complexities and contingencies that shape the outcome of that event (history). But how we remember that event (memory) can be at odds with what actually happened at the time.”
I disagree with one of Gallagher’s observations: “it doesn’t matter what happened, it’s what we think happened.” My own view is that what actually happened does matter. Quite often it’s not easy to know this in satisfactory detail, even with the investment of honest effort. There are far too many examples of mistaken or self-serving “memories” of a preferred version of history, with far too much political/social/economic damage done in the name of such perverted historical “truths”, and far too many bodies strewn on false, treacherous and perfidious memory lanes.
I think there is no preventive cure for this debasement of history.
I think there is only the honorable pursuit of understanding our past in its full, historical context, with willingness to welcome insight into what the actors thought they were doing, and how they justified their actions at the time.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014